Q&A: Stem cell scientist Michael Laflamme on funding cuts and mending broken hearts

Q&A: Stem cell scientist Michael Laflamme on funding cuts and mending broken hearts

Last month, Doug Ford’s government slashed $5 million in annual funding to the Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the engine behind much of the province’s most promising stem-cell research. Among the certified brainiacs affected by the cuts is Michael Laflamme, an American cardiovascular pathologist who moved to Toronto four years ago to be part of the province’s stem-cell research boom. We spoke with the double doctorate to find out more about his groundbreaking research, why the cuts are bad for Ontario’s economic future and what he thinks about Doug Ford.

What was your reaction when the conservative government announced the cuts? Were you shocked? Devastated? Furious?
The word I’d use is disappointed. It wasn’t a complete surprise—there were mutters about potential funding changes. It’s obviously sad to see the sun setting just as the institute was getting its sea legs and starting to have some nice deliverables.

What kind of deliverables?
We’re working with a special type of stem cell called “pluripotent” to regenerate hearts after a heart attack. They can adjust to become any type of cell in the adult body—skin cells, gastrointestinal cells, connective tissue—and we’ve figured out a way to essentially turn them into heart muscle cells. These are the cells you lose during a heart attack and usually they’re replaced by scar tissue. That’s a problem because it can lead to heart failure and of those who survive, 50 per cent are dead within five years. Our research has the potential to change that.

And what will it mean for your research when that funding runs out at the end of the year?
Our program will probably be okay in spite of the cuts. We’re in a better position because we’ve already collected data from rats and mice that suggests this is a promising strategy. Things might move along more slowly, but the plan is still to push this into clinical trials. I’m more worried about what happens to the next good idea that comes along. Ontario is going to miss out on a lot of opportunities to do some promising medical research.

Economic development minister Todd Smith argued that promising ideas will get funding from the private sector. Is that true?
Industry will only invest in technologies that are at a certain stage of development. It’s going to be extremely difficult to get funding for ideas that have a lot of promise, but are at an earlier stage in development.

Are there other implications of privatizing research intended for public good?
There are a lot of ethical issues. Industry is mandated to get a return on investment, so they’re going to fund projects based on that guarantee. That might leave certain rarer diseases understudied, even if there are promising stem cell therapeutics out there that could help. Our institute has also provided a lot of funding for trainees, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows. That’s not something industry is going to do, even though it’s incredibly important to support the next generation of researchers.

You moved here from Washington four years ago because Toronto was such a promising hub for stem-cell research. Might an all-knowing Dr. Michael Laflamme of the past make a different decision?
A lot of people don’t know this, but stem cells were discovered in Toronto by two U of T doctors back in the ’60s. Ever since, the city has been punching above its weight in terms of stem-cell biology and regenerative medicine—especially over the past few years. I came here because it’s one of the best places in the world to do this kind of research, and I hope that continues to be the case.

So the takeaway here is that Ford’s cuts are misguided, even from an economic perspective?
I’m a scientist, not an economist, but that’s certainly my thinking. The success we have had with our research drew the attention of venture capitalists and Baer, which launched a company here called Blue Rock Therapeutics for an initial investment of $225 million (U.S.). That’s big, big money, with 50 employees here in Toronto. It’s already created a return on investment.

If you could sit down with the premier for two minutes, what would you say?
I guess this might sound a little cheesy, but I think of these new regenerative medicine technologies as the industry of the future in Toronto and Ontario. Folks like myself are betting their whole careers on the idea that we could be to regenerative medicine what Detroit was to automobiles in the ’50s. Speaking as a physician and scientist, there are diseases we need solutions for, and we have a lot of potential to find them. It seems like a no-brainer.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.